Monday, January 30, 2012

Abram's Alcatraz: The promise of a good story

Fox/Alcatraz
In "Kit Nelson," Dr. Diego Soto is talking with Dylan, a boy who recently escaped and was then rescued from a serial child killer. The boy confesses he is still scared, and Soto shares his own experience with the boy: 
Soto: When I was a kid, about your age, something happened… where someone … took me ... just like that guy who took you, right. And it wasn’t easy, but…  
He trails off.  
Soto: I got away too. And once that happens—once you know that … you can do that—it sorta gives you a superpower—  
He looks at Dylan's comic books. 
Soto: --like theirs, but … real.  
Dylan looks at the comic books and smiles a little.  
Dylan: I didn’t give up, like you said.  
Soto: I know you didn’t.

I am a long time fan of J.J. Abrams’ stories. I count Felicity, Alias and Lost among my favorite television series. I loved what he did with Star Trek and Super8 was one of the best films of last year. Now he has his hand in a new story: Fox’s Alcatraz, which reveals that the island prison’s inmates weren’t actually transferred to other prisons when it was shut down in 1963 as history records—instead, they and a handful of guards suddenly and mysteriously disappeared. Now the inmates are reappearing in present day, unaged and with mysterious and (so far) murderous missions. FBI agent Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill), SFPD detective Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones) and Dr. Diego Soto (Jorge Garcia) are drawn together to track down the escapees and protect the world from whoever or whatever is behind it all.

The series has its weakness. It seems like it’s still finding its feet. Abrams’ touch feels more subtle on this one than his other series; I wish it were stronger. Niell needs a larger character and Jones feels a bit miscast to me. But Alcatraz definitely has my attention—especially after last week’s episode “Kit Nelson."
                                     
The heart and strength of the series has quickly settled on Jorge Garcia’s Alcatraz guru and comic book writer, Dr. Diego Soto. Critics have been quick to note the similarities between Garcia’s Hurly from Lost and Alcatraz's Soto, one of the more interesting being that Garcia’s character provides us the audience with a voice and lens through which to experience Abrams’ mysterious world. And this is another strong draw of the series; Abrams’ universes tend to include the existence of something greater around us, with larger forces and plans—and how the characters encounter and react to that greater reality in Abrams’ stories tends to reveal something about us (and that tends to bring God-talk into these opens spaces).
                                                                                                               
There is something of this in Soto’s observation at the end of the episode (above). We all know people—in history and in our own lives—who have endured suffering and horror. For some, it changes them for the worse, something we’ve seen in some of the inmates in the series so far. For others, against all logic and odds the experience leaves them stronger and more compassionate people. And we get an inkling of that in Soto, who seems to have endured a similar horrific experience as a child. The experience of survival versus the horror of the suffering has become a strength.

And while that truth is powerful enough on its own, the scene reminds me of an even deeper truth. When we have suffered yet trusted God in the darkness and come through on the other side, it leaves us changed and strengthened, almost as if hope is engrained deep in our bones. In my experience, that exerts itself in the dark times that follow. We still suffer and the darkness still oppresses, but something’s changed; we've changed. Even if only in brief moments, something stirs of its own volition, moves on its terms, churns with its own life. Hope takes root and survives. In some sense it feels, to borrow Soto’s words, like “a superpower … only real.”
                                                                 
The series—this episode in particular—raises some difficult issues and questions when it comes to our transformations we experience as human beings. “Kit Nelson” focused on child abduction and murder, and the episode squarely places this kind of criminal at the very bottom of despicable, with one inmate telling another that he is despised not because of what he did but because of who he is. This idea that we act out of who we are invites questions about the nature of sin and redemption. And I can't help but think of a quote from C.S. Lewis’ The Weight of Glory about the implications of the immortal nature of us all: 
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.
Can such an immortal creature as Kit Nelson be redeemed? Is he even capable of making decisions in that direction? Or is there a point in which we make so many wrong choices we are irredeemable—at least on this side of death? And, more personally, what makes us choose a path towards light and redemption in the face of suffering and horror while another chooses a path towards darkness? Perhaps the rest of Lewis’ quote gives us a good place to start:
All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment.
Alcatraz has a lot of things I love in stories—a character who is rooted in story itself and understands the world better because of it, the discovery of a vaster (both beautiful and frightening) reality in which we live, twists and surprises. But mostly, and probably mostly because of Garcia, it has the makings of a good story—one that explores what it means to be human, tells us something more about the world and reality in which we live, and ultimately, brings God-talk into open spaces.

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